Laity input crucial in pastoral planning

Hundreds gather in Warwick to learn how to become involved in planning the future of the local church

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WARWICK — Nearly 400 parishioners from around Warwick gathered in Founders Hall at Bishop Hendricken High School on Wednesday, Feb. 8, to take part in an informative night regarding pastoral planning and what that means for the future of parishes in their community.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s Pastoral Planning Committee, composed of 17 members representing priests, permanent deacons and the laity, is currently working with representatives of parishes in different regions of the diocese in an effort to help guide them in making tough decisions about their future viability. In the weeks and months ahead, these individuals are asked to continue meeting on their own to come up with recommendations on how best to proceed with a restructuring of their local parish order.

Facing the reality of falling Mass attendance rates and a rapidly decreasing availability of priests to serve the more than 140 churches still open across the diocese, Rebecca Page Perez, manager of the diocesan office for Pastoral Planning, explained that the need for laity involvement is greater than ever.

“Why do we request your presence and participation? Because it is about your input that will make the difference for the future. Working with your pastor is key. You are and will be part of the team that will help write the future plan,” Page Perez said.

She shared that parishioners have been very cooperative in the process as it has begun to unfold in communities across the diocese. Most recently, faithful from St. Peter Parish and St. Benedict Parish in Warwick have already begun to take initiative, reaching out to ask to be part of the individual planning committees. It is at the next meeting in a few weeks that each pastor will choose five representatives from their parish to start the planning. She encouraged parishes to brainstorm ideas on how to collaborate and share resources to streamline the offering of religious services in their area.

“We need your input,” she told those in attendance. “Consolidation is key. The Church may be smaller but it is stronger.”

During the town meeting, a special panel provided further details on planning, highlighting the process and sharing ways that the faithful can continue to work together for the good of all the Church.

Msgr. Raymond B. Bastia, diocesan Vicar of Finance, and a member of the Pastoral Planning Committee, spoke about financial trends and explained that the faithful must keep in mind parish finances, aging infrastructure, declining numbers of worshippers and the availability of priestly resources to serve a certain area.

“In a cross section survey, parishes that submitted financial reports with a positive result showed that typically they had at least 900 - 1,000 registered families, 600 consistent budget users and an offertory that generated income between $235,000 - $250,000. It gives us an idea of where we need to be,” said Msgr. Bastia.

Sean P. Henseler, a Bishop Hendricken alum and professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport and Director of Operations, offered an explanation on the current state of planning, including differences in each region as well as a future perspective. He offered many important questions for parishes to consider in determining if they have a truly active and vibrant community, such as the financial condition of the parish, how many parishioners attend and contribute on a weekly basis, the size of staff, current state of programs such a religious education and music ministry, and how current Mass times are working out with the number of priests that they have.

When Henseler joined the military, the lifelong parishioner of St. Francis de Sales in North Kingstown explained that he has attended Mass on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, in tents in the middle of Somalia and in a bunker, under mortar fire in Iraq. To him — it’s not about the building he is in, but the celebration of the sacrament.

“It’s about that sharing of faith amongst people that also have a deep faith,” he said. “I may be a little unique in that I am not tied to a building, not tied to a parish. But, what I am finding is that I am a little bit different in that regard. But I would say that hopefully all of us are not unique in that we all have a strong faith — that’s why we are here,”Henseler said.

“I want to make sure that my kids share in and have the benefit of the faith that has served me well throughout my entire life,” he said. “We have all been in situations in our life that we have to rely on our faith. I view this as my mission to help get our kids where they need to be because we have been blessed with what we have.”

Father Andrew Messina, pastor of St. Timothy Church in Warwick, was one of a few local priests who spoke about the parish perspective on the planning process. He shared that there is one basic question that they have to ask: “What does God want us to do about the parishes and how do we best serve our needs currently and in the future?”

“This is a challenge that God wants us to take and I’m willing to do everything I can and I’m sure all the other parishes are going to do what they can to try to bring this whole thing together,” said Father Messina. “This is God’s agenda, not our agenda. It’s time consuming, it involves sacrifice, but it’s going to be good.”

Father added that Catholics must follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, explaining that the spiritual element is just as important in the pastoral planning process.

“We have to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make sure we are really listening to God’s agenda. We really need your input. We want lots and lots of engagement and lots of good communication. We have great talent among us and I really believe that we can do this with total faith and total confidence, because we do trust in the Lord and we know that the Lord has never let us down. Ultimately, this will be good.”

The pastoral planning office will be coordinating an informational parish fair to offer the laity an opportunity to listen to priests from the Warwick community. It will be an opportunity to learn about parish resources and to become involved in the planning process. A date and time will be announced.